I've been meaning to write some blog entries about life in the Orthodox Church and how it gets lived out at home and in ordinary life outside of the Church services. This will likely take more than one blog post. So, here I go.
Tonight is Saturday evening. Liturgically, Orthodox Christians follow the same reckoning of time as the Jews did (in the Bible)...and there was evening, and there was morning, the first day, etc. In other words, the new day starts at sunset. Practically, this means that Saturday evening is holy time. We start our Sunday worship by attending Vespers/Vigil (evening prayers) on Saturday evening. In our parish this happens at 6:30 pm. in various places it's done differently (In some parishes, Matins is prayed on Sunday morning before the Divine Liturgy is served.), but for us, part of the Matins prayers at tacked on to the back of the Vespers service, so that we are usually praying until almost 8 pm. This includes a Matins gospel reading, which is always one of eleven or twelve readings about the resurrection of Christ. So, every Saturday night, we start to turn our hearts towards Sunday morning, the reality of Christ's resurrection, and we anticipate receiving His body and blood into ourselves in the Eucharistic celebration. This is our life.
The whole week revolves around this.
So, Saturday night is a special time. After vespers, we come home and eat a meal. We try to make is substantial, because barring health concerns it is normal to fast completely from food and drink starting at midnight Saturday night. I always remind the kids to drink a large glass of water before bed so that they aren't dying of thirst the next morning, too.
Saturday night is not a time for going out, or going to a party, or watching a movie at home even. It's a quiet evening. Usually we are tired. And after Vespers and our meal, once the kids are tucked, we like to pray a canon and some prayers in preparation for Holy Commuion. This is normal, and not at all considered "above and beyond". We examine our hearts and make sure we are at peace. Saturday evening after vespers is a very common time for people to make confession in preparation for receiving Eucharist the next day.
Orthodox Christians believe about the Eucharist the same as the earliest Christians, that "this is truly Thy body, and this is truly Thy most pure blood" and so we take our preparations to receive Christ very very seriously. Hopefully, no one approaches communion in a flippant way, or in a "I deserve this" way. But rather, we we like to say: "In fear and in faith and in love, let us draw near."
Saturday night is a good time for a husband and a wife to talk and pray together. Letting go of distractions and having this quiet carved out in our life is something that is very special to me. It's best not to go to bed too late, though.
Sunday morning is simple. Everyone just rolls out of bed and into their Church clothes and then we get in the car. While we are driving to Church, since our famly lives so far away, we have time to pray the 30 minute pre-communion prayer service. Many folks might pray this on Saturday night. That's fine, too. These prayers are rather penitential in nature. I think it's good to be penitential when approaching God. But these prayers also express an absolute faith that God is the God who saves, and that He does save us, and that He also transforms us into His glorious likeness. We pray, as it says in 1 Cor. 11 that we would not partake in an unworthy manner unto our death.
And then we enter into the Divine Liturgy. It's preceded by a short 20 minute service called the prayers of the hours, in which 1st hour prayers and 3rd hour prayers are prayed. (Praying the hours is another blog post all its own, and I'll write about that after I write these posts about "Through the Week...")
The structure of the Divine Liturgy is the subject of many books. Perhaps I'll do a blog post on it someday, as well. Suffice it to say, we pray intercessory prayers for everyone and everything. We offer worship to God, we bow down to Him (literally), we listen to and Epistle and a Gospel reading, we pray the Beatitudes, and we offer, with much thanksgiving and many intercessions (litanies) the Eucharist. After it's all over we pray what are called "Thanksgiving Prayers". About two hours.
Yes, it is a lot of work. But it is THE work...the work of the people. It's what we DO. And everything flows out of this. The almsgiving, the giving to others and working for peace in our families, in our communities, the prayers we offer up the rest of the week...all of it flows out of or reflects back on or looks forward to the Eucharist. Jesus Christ is the highlight of the week and for Orthodox Christians there is this beautiful structure each week and each day that reminds of constantly of this truth, and draws us inexorably further towards God, if we but give in and let ourselves be tugged along by this life.